Title: Coal Flat

Author: Bill Pearson

Publication details: Paul’s Book Arcade, 1963, Auckland

Digital publication kindly authorised by: Paul Millar

Part of: New Zealand Texts Collection

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Coal Flat



When she got out of the train at Stillwater she had still hardly recovered from her emotion on emerging from the Otira tunnel and seeing mountains and bush: she couldn’t imagine country more wild and she was surprised to find she was the only passenger in the carriage who seemed to be affected. They took it so casually, yet she couldn’t lay the fear that she had committed herself to two years in a wilderness. She still felt a stranger in an unknown country when she stood waiting where the railway porter had directed her, at the side of the road, for the bus. When it came she struggled aboard with the one case she had taken from the car in Wellington, and found that the bus was full except for a side seat at the back. Everyone stared at her and she wondered: ‘Do they belong to Coal Flat? Do they know I’m the new teacher?’ A young man rose and said, ‘Here,’ and took her case and stowed it on the rack. She was grateful but wordless that he hadn’t asked her permission first. She sat down, troubled a little by the tobacco smoke in this back part of the bus. There was a lot of noise it seemed. People were talking loudly across the seats and someone up front was exchanging cheeky remarks with someone in the back. ‘Wild West,’ she thought indulgently; and studied the people in the back seat. There was the dark young man who had helped her with her case. ‘The strong silent type’ she thought: it was part of her bright sense of humour to have a label ready-made for every person or incident: she always liked to know what attitude to take to anything. He sat smoking, not saying anything, with a fugitive look of disdain, an animal masculine pride page 52 that made her look furtively away. There were two men talking thickly from beer (‘One over the eight,’ she thought) about a coming race-meeting. Beyond them in the corner an elderly man lay sloppily, drunk and half asleep, with his hat off and his old-fashioned collar open and tie loosened; and two top buttons of his fly were undone. ‘Really, it is disgusting,’ she thought; when he noticed her looking at him. ‘Don’ min’ me, lady,’ he said thickly. ‘I’ve jus’ been to town today. My daughter she’s jus’ had another boy. Three gran’chil’ren lady.’ Miss Danc flushed and tried to smile and tried to look out of the window but she couldn’t do that without turning right round; she was hurt that people looked at her to see who he was talking to, but that no one tried to stop him. In Roko no one got drunk like that (except an occasional Maori) and if anyone did he was carefully nursed to avoid any breach of the conventions, and it took him years to live down the talk that followed as retribution. The old man continued, ‘She’s righ’, lady. Don’ you worry about ol’ Tom,’ and then began to retch and too helpless to get a handkerchief, spewed a little stale beer on the floor. ‘Surely now they’ll do something,’ she thought; ‘hasn’t anyone noticed?’ She wanted to call the driver and tell him to stop the bus, put the man off, let him be sick outside. But all anyone did was the young man handed him a handkerchief to wipe his mouth. She looked at the young man for sympathy; she compressed her lips and found the courage to say, ‘It’s disgusting.’ The young man shattered her mood with a frank slightly quizzical look that to her seemed heathen and bland and said, ‘He’s happy’. She felt she was riding to Sodom.

‘Happy?’ she said involuntarily,

The young man studied her for a second with the facial equivalent of a shrug, ‘You don’t belong to the Coast,’ he said.

‘No,’ she said, shyly warming up to the prospect of introducing herself. ‘It’s my first visit.’


‘Well no, not exactly’—she was recovering her familiar archness. ‘I’ve come here to work. I’m the new infant mistress at Coal Flat.’

‘Oh, a schoolteacher,’ he said with just a touch of indulgence.

People looked at her and stared and looked away without much comment. She was disappointed. When she was travelling for the first time to Roko, she had quietly mentioned to the woman next to her who she was; and then the woman self-effacingly turned round and whispered to the people behind her, and the whisper went guiltily round the bus, and she sat pretending not to hear it but glad to be the target of stolen stares. She began to doubt all she’d heard of West Coast hospitality.

page 53

‘You’ll like the Coast,’ the young man said. ‘Everybody does. Can’t keep away from it myself.’

This was better. ‘Oh, I always try anything once,’ she said with what she thought was the spirit of the pioneers; it usually impressed people.

‘You’ll like the Flat,’ he said. ‘It’s the nicest town I know.’

There was something in his bearing that fascinated her, a pagan independence; his eyes looking at her and frankly taking her in, recognized no don’t-trespass notices. She was used to knowing deep down that she was a woman and therefore desirable to a man, and she was used to being treated by men with politeness and distance. Since training college she had never known any man beyond exchanges that could be safely overheard in a train; this man cheated, she felt; he started where others left off, he established direct contact with people when he spoke. She felt awkward and shy, and was relieved when his eyes contracted out of the meeting, when he lit a cigarette and with sensuous thoughtfulness blew smoke-rings—or tried to, she thought, because the air wasn’t still enough.

The drunkard had fallen asleep and was breathing heavily. People seemed to have forgotten him. She turned awkwardly and looked out of the window; on one side of the road, bush and occasional small sawmills with fires of waste timber and piles of sawdust, on the other the railway line and the swampy skirts of the river. English willows and bulrushes and little pools with flax-clumps and stands of tall stark kahikatea and skinny young silver-pine. ‘There’s the Flat,’ the young man said, and she looked where he pointed, thinking, ‘It’s rude to point,’ and saw in the shadow of a mountain range a forlorn cluster of roofs and a halo of chimney-smoke perched on a terrace. ‘Flat?’ she thought, ‘I thought it would be a river-flat. That’s a terrace.’ They passed a gold dredge in a side-valley, sitting behind its tailings. Eventually they crossed a wooden bridge across a wide riverbed skirted with willows and passed through old tailings overgrown with blackberry and red with lichen. The road began to climb and wind and on one side she looked straight down into beech forest, and then the bus came out to the main road of Coal Flat, the cemetery first, then a long double row of wooden houses irregularly spaced, half of them without paint, with grey lichen on the wood, standing in untended sections wild with long grass and blackberry. The bus seemed to have no regular stops, the driver knew where anyone wanted to get off and stopped there; ‘Rafferty rules,’ she thought.

‘Will there be anyone to meet me?’ she wondered. ‘Where am I to board? Not in one of those shacks, I hope.’ She had guessed by page 54 now that it was a mining town and she was worried. She had wired the secretary of the school committee that she was coming: it was up to him to arrange her board; the headmaster would surely have seen that he did anyway. But when the bus pulled up at the post office and the remaining passengers moved to get out she saw no one waiting that looked like a secretary of a school committee. ‘He’ll be a miner himself,’ she thought with fear. The young man took her case without a word and left it on the footpath and left her without a word; she felt insulted, ignored, and especially when he supported the drunkard across the street. She looked helplessly. There were men coming with crib-tins under the arm, or sugar bags slung from the shoulder, some with towels around their necks. There were two groups of women talking in accents from Clydeside and Yorkshire and Tyneside. There were two boys riding bikes in circles across the road. ‘Don’t they teach them the rules of the road here?’ There were three other boys and a girl, all untidily dressed, with dirty legs, chasing one another, trying to punch one another and shouting; one of them swore. One of the women, a Scot, said, ‘You cuh ouh your bliddy sweerin’, Peher Herlihy,’ and Peter Herlihy made a face at her. Bewildered, Miss Dane accosted the first man she saw, a miner with a sugar bag and a butt hanging on his lip.

‘Excuse me, can you tell me please where I might find board here?’

The miner stopped and first looked hard at her face so that she was embarrassed. ‘Well, lady, the best place’d be the pub.’

‘The pub?’ she said nervously.

‘How long are you here for?’

‘Two years’ (she almost added ‘D.V. and W.P.’ but didn’t). ‘I’m to start at the school, you see.’

‘Oh, a schoolteacher. Well you’d best go to Palmers’, lady. The teachers always stay there. It’s the best place in this town, even if I do say it meself. I used to own the place meself.’

‘Is there no private board available?’

‘Well, there’s no one can be bothered with boarders here. And, I don’t mean any offence, but, ask yourself, it’s a bit hard on the kids to have a schoolteacher staying with you. There’s only the pubs, and believe me, the other two aren’t much; they’re all right for the likes of me, for a miner if he’s not too fussy, but for anyone that’s had a middle-class upbringing like yourself’ (Miss Dane looked helpless: she couldn’t cope with these comments) ‘Palmers’ is the best. Give us your case. I’m going over to have a few pints.’

Nervously she followed him across the road and entered the page 55 passage, trying not to hear the loud talk from the bar. From the far end of the passage came whoops of excitement. The miner left her case and went down the passage. He came back and said, ‘You’ve come at a bad time. Their boy’s just come home. She’s got him by the balls.’ Miss Dane for a split second suspected obscenity, but she refused to recognize it; it was unbelievable, it must be some harmless local idiom. ‘She’s like a broody old hen, she’s got to have all her chicks around her. Flora will be up in a minute.’

‘Thanks awfully,’ she said.

‘Well, I’ll have my pint. You’ll have one of my boys. Don’t whack him too hard.’ He opened the bar door and she darted a glance at the drinkers and looked away again without letting herself see anything clearly enough to remember. Waiting with her suitcase she tried again, watching them through the slide. There were several men leaning on the bar, silent and stolid, just staring ahead of them. When they saw her they stared at her without great curiosity and without embarrassment. She heard the barman say, ‘One without a collar, Jimmy?’

‘Your boy’s home again, Don?’

‘There’ll have to be a bit of a spree tonight.’

‘Drinks on the house?’

‘Not too many of them, Jimmy. You ought to know that yourself.’

‘No publican ever got fat giving away the drinks.’

The door opened and a man with a silver blaze of receding hair came forward. He was dressed in an old suit and he had a black singlet on beneath the suit. He wore spectacles.

‘Miss Dane, is it?’ She was surprised; by now she didn’t expect anyone to know of her. ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘My name’s Henderson. I’m the secretary of the school committee. Mr Cairns told me you’d arrived.’

‘Mr Cairns?’

‘Yes, he carried your case over.’

It struck her as funny that that man should be called Mr; but what else could she have expected? In any case she was attracted to this man: his voice and his manner carried her back into the habits she was familiar with—politeness, courtesy, the social decencies. She was prepared to forgive his being a miner—after all, it was a mining town, someone had to dig the coal, and it showed the parents took an interest in their school—and she was ready to show herself eager to be accepted in Coal Flat.

‘Is this where I’m to stay, Mr Henderson?’

‘Yes, Miss Dane. I spoke to Mrs Palmer about it and it’s all fixed page 56 up. You’ll find them nice people—you won’t get better in Coal Flat. I didn’t meet the bus, Miss Dane, because I knew you’d find your way here.’

‘Well—I didn’t know where I was to stay….’

‘Oh, anyone would have told you. You’d only have had to say you were the teacher and they’d have sent you to Palmers’.’

She couldn’t help wrinkling her nose at his beery breath; she tried to suspend breathing; but she was prepared to make allowances now; ‘After all he’s not drunk.’

‘Oh well, I’ve found my future home and castle, that’s the main thing.’ Mr Henderson might be the bridgehead of her introduction to the town; she found her mind working in terms of the Roko pattern. ‘She’s a bright and friendly wee soul,’ was what she imagined people would say of her: she was careful to give the right first impression.

‘Oh yes.’ Arthur Hendersen was all smiles. He was acting in an official capacity; meeting a teacher like this made him feel his life was justified since he held so important a place in the community. She wondered why he hadn’t met the bus. The truth was he felt ashamed to meet her in the clothes he wore to the mine; yet he was afraid that if he left the pit early to change into a better suit, and a collar and tie, the other miners would jeer at him. ‘You’ll like us up here. I suppose you’ve heard about West Coast hospitality. Well, we just take people as we find them and we expect them to do the same.’ His broad but fussy smiling face jerked up at her with lips primly closed in a brittle simper: a diplomatic point neatly and triumphantly driven home, the lips and eyes seemed to say. ‘We’ve a nice school, the new one, it’s only ten years old now. Still, you’ll see it all tomorrow. And you’ll meet Mr Heath in the morning too —he’s the headmaster. Then there’s young Rogers stays here too, he’ll be professional company for you, he’s a great favourite with the Palmers. It’s a pity Miss Johnson isn’t still here, but then she was only relieving till you came; you’ll have her room. Oh you’ll get to know them all, Miss Dane; in a week’s time you’ll feel as if you’ve known the place the years, that’s how friendly it is.’

Miss Dane was reassured by the avuncular manner and the gold-rimmed spectacles. She gathered courage: ‘Mr Henderson, I’m afraid I’m not very keen on a hotel atmosphere. I wondered rather if there weren’t any private homes that offered board….’

Arthur Henderson contorted his face into the overdone and piggish pout with which, in any public capacity, he met a challenge. ‘Well, that raises a difficult question, Miss Dane. Confidentially, I’ve always felt the same myself….’

page 57

‘Yes, it’s hardly the place for a teacher, Mr Henderson. It looks bad to the children.’

‘I agree. I agree, Miss Dane. But when you know this town as I know it, Miss Dane’—his voice was lowered and rhetorically conspiratorial; and Miss Dane’s misgivings returned—‘no one wants boarders here, Miss Dane. They can’t be bothered with them. They just can’t be bothered putting themselves out. And to tell you the God’s honest truth, there’s only one or two houses here that would be worthy of you. But if you stay here in the meantime, perhaps later on we might he able to arrange something. Here’s Mrs Palmer now. Hello Mrs Palmer. I was just telling Miss Dane she’d be very happy with you.’

‘Thank you, Mr Henderson,’ Mrs Palmer said with cold politeness, then warmly, ‘How are you Miss Dane?’ and grabbed her shoulders and rocked her. Miss Dane would in Roko, have expected her to kiss her, but Mrs Palmer didn’t hold with women kissing one another. ‘Excuse me leaving you so long, but I’m all excited.’ She picked up the suitcase and skipped in a circle, one arm up as in Highland dancing. ‘My boy’s come home,’ she said. ‘When you’re a mother you’ll know all about it, Miss Dane.’ She tried to sing the words of a Tin Pan Alley tune ‘My Guy’s Come Home’, but she never could manage riff rhythms or any jazz rhythms—they bear for a way of feeling different from hers. She called through the slide, ‘Hullo, Jimmy. Hullo, Jack. Mum’s going on the ran-tan tonight, eh? My boy’s come home….Hullo, Mr Herlihy; what? Yes, we’ll kill the fatted calf all right, nothing’s too good for my boy….Excuse me, Miss Dane…. Damn cheek,’ she muttered.

Miss Dane was overwhelmed; a dark powerful big-built woman had borne down on her and grabbed her suitcase and given her a warm welcome and talked to a barful of boozers all in one breath, almost: surely there was some Maori in her too? ‘Did you get off the bus, Miss Dane?…. Then you must have come up with Don. Oh he’s a fine lad, Miss Dane; he’d be any mother’s joy and pride, Oh, you’ll like the Coast, Miss Dane. We’re very friendly people. Mind you, not everyone in Coal Flat is up to much; but you can go out on that street and ask anyone about Palmers’ and they’d tell you it’s the best you’d get in Coal Flat. Mind you, I’m not that way I blow my own trumpet. But I just wanted to reassure you, like, when you’ve come all this way, you know, and coming to a strange town, you like to know what sort of a place you’re moving into. But anyway you can stay here for the two years if you want to, Miss Dane, or if you don’t like it, you can leave any time you like; page 58 we don’t hold you obliged to stay, if you know what I mean. We’ve got another teacher staying with us too, Miss Dane—he’s another of my boys.’

‘You’ve got a son teaching at the school, Mrs Palmer?’

‘Well, I’m not his mother but we treat him as one of the family. We’ve known him for years.’ Miss Dane felt a slight touch of jealousy: she saw a school full of teachers entrenched in the affection of the community while she went unnoticed. ‘I’ll see if he’s about. Flor! Flora!’

From the far and of the passage an attractive girl came—Miss Dane was sure there was Maori blood in the family. ‘Hullo, Miss Dane,’ she said with unaffected warmth and shook hands with the slightest and most natural-seeming suggestion of a curtsey.

‘Flor, where’s Paul?’

‘He’s out just now, Mum. I think he went to see old Mrs Seldom.’

‘Never mind. You’ll see him at dinner. Dinner’s at six o’clock. you’ll hear the gong.’

‘Did you have a nice trip, Miss Dane?’ Miss Dane was attracted to this girl. She didn’t bear down on one like her mother, she was unaffected, and yet, it was evident to Miss Dane, she had deliberately improved herself according to good models: her speech, her manner were faultless. ‘You go back and talk to Don, Mum,’ Flora said. ‘I’ll show Miss Dane her room.’

When she had unpacked and washed, Miss Dane found there was still a half-hour before tea. She didn’t trust herself to walk round the town. Instead she took out a writing-pad and began a long and archly humorous letter to Mrs O’Reilly telling her of her first impressions of Coal Flat. She had written six pages without stopping when the gong sounded, and she was as yet only with Mr Cairns—‘as Fate disclosed was his …’ nomenclature? No, she shouldn’t show off her education to Mrs O.; that would be intellectual snobbery: ‘as Fate disclosed was his title.’ ‘Really, I should write a novel,’ she thought.